Sharing our practice as an unrestricted funder - why we had a learning review and what it looks like

Rachel Oglethorpe (Director) with contributions from Tracey Fletcher (Chair) and Felicia Boshorin (CEO, Spring Community Hub, funded partner) - and with thanks to our Board and our funded partners.

Why this blog? 

Other funders have asked us about our new learning framework. We developed it following a review with the research agency IVAR to help make us better and more effective at capturing and using learning from our funded partners - and also to be more confident about understanding the impact of our unrestricted, multi-year giving and to strengthen our renewals process. We wanted to be more transparent with our funded partners about how we make decisions. We wanted an approach that was proportional and practical for one staff member and a busy Board. This blog shares our journey, headlines, actions so far - along with some practicalities.

  1. Background 
  2. Why we had a learning review - four headlines 
  3. Our new learning framework - what it looks like in practice 
  4. Learning into action - seven actions 
  5. What next?
  6. Extra info - some practicalities and helpful links


1. Background

Peter Minet Trust is a place-based funder supporting small, local charities rooted in their communities in Lambeth and Southwark. In 2020 we pivoted from awarding around 40 small and micro one-off grants a year averaging £3,000 each, to having 6-12 funded partners receiving unrestricted, multi-year grants of around £30,000 pa. 

This change was driven by sector learning available and feedback from local charities. We wanted to award funding in a way that charities said would make the most difference to their work– not act as an auditor or regulator. So, we changed our funding practices to match, including reducing the burden of applications and reporting. Our Board made refreshed commitments to greater diversity in our leadership, grant making and operations, underpinned by our values around trust.

We made our first awards in March 2020 and, two years later, the Board prioritised Black-led charities in Round 2 - we intentionally promoted and reached out to organisations within this priority group in response to learning, particularly during Covid. 86% of our Round 2 partners are now Black-led charities compared with 17% in Round 1.


Tracey Fletcher

If you’re going to be open to learning, it will mean rethinking some quite well-established approaches. We have seen real benefits to (this) approach – our partners feel they can trust us more, that they can be more open about their challenges. And this is what helps us to think about how we can work together to achieve the ultimate goal of supporting communities.

Tracey Fletcher, Chair

2. Why a learning review? Our work with IVAR and four headlines

'We often felt defensive. Were we relying too much on anecdotes and stories? Did that matter?'  Rachel Oglethorpe, Director

We were learning a lot from our funded partners - about the impact of Covid on their work and communities; about the work they were doing in their communities; about the positive difference unrestricted funding was making - and funded partners were opening up about their challenges. 

This was valuable but we often felt defensive when other funders challenged us - How do you know you’re making a difference? How do you know if there’s a problem – isn’t it too ‘risky’? Were we relying too much on anecdotes and stories - what was their value? Were we complacent? How could we capture and use our learning better? How could we do this with one part-time employee and a busy Board?

We wanted to be better and more confident about capturing, sharing and using that learning – and turning it into action. We wanted to be more confident about what ‘risk’ meant to us within an ‘open and trusting’ partnership and how we manage it. So, IVAR worked with us to review our existing practices including interviewing our funded partners and leading Board workshops.

Headlines from our learning review:

  1. Existing Open & Trusting practices - we are already using many existing ‘open and trusting’ practices that are making a positive difference to charities. We need to be more confident about the value of the information we are capturing from funded partners and see this as ‘data’.
  2. Learning questions - introducing ‘learning questions’ to focus on over a set period could stimulate more engaged Board discussion and lead to clearer pathways to action – more productive than sharing up-dates on delivery.
  3. Consistency and capturing learning – we could bring more order to the data we are capturing by being more consistent about the questions we are asking funded partners, linking these to questions we were exploring at Board level.
  4. Transparency – we could increase transparency specifically around our renewal visits - recognise that whether a grant is renewed is the ‘elephant in the room’ and is stressful for funded partners. Think more as a Board about what ‘good’ or a ‘risk’ or a ‘concern’ might look like for Peter Minet in an open and trusting partnership, share this with the partner - and what happens if there is one. 


Felicia Boshorin

When you get a call from a funder, you’re usually panicking about what it is. It’s a nicer place to be when you can share what you want and not worry how things look – writing a new strategy might not be going well, or we might have a problem, but that’s OK - it’s less frightening. 

When funders turn up and listen it makes a huge difference – it helps my confidence as CEO but it’s also human and gives confidence to my whole staff team. When funders were there to meet local councillors recently at the opening of our new Social Supermarket, it helped councillors feel good about us - but also felt good that someone else cares for our local residents. 

Being able to use the money as we want means we shift to focusing on our recipients and their needs – not just pleasing the funder. 

Talking like this helps take us to the next level and that’s got to be better.

Felicia Boshorin, CEO, Spring Community Hub, funded partner of Peter Minet Trust

3. Our new learning framework - what it looks like in practice

As a place-based funder, we are primarily interested in how we can best support the local community. Yes, we want to understand how our funded partners are making a difference in their communities, but mostly we want to know how we can be the best funder possible to do that – and this is now the overarching question that guides our learning and action.

Our new framework includes:

  1. Organisational learning questions
  2. Strengthened and more transparent renewal process 
  3. More consistent approach to visiting partners including what information we capture 
  4. Thematic and action-focused learning reports used to make decisions

Our 2023 Learning Questions – reviewed annually:

Overarching Learning Question:   How can Peter Minet be the best possible funder to our funded partners? 

Subsidiary Learning Questions 2023:

  • How can Peter Minet contribute to the future stability of partners beyond the lifetime of the grant?
  • What is the impact on the funded partner of Peter Minet Trust stopping funding?
  • What will it take for funded partner to feel supported through the Cost-of-Living Crisis?
  • What adaptations should be made to evolve Peter Minet’s grant-making model and future strategy?


4. So what?  Seven actions

Here are examples of initial learning turned into action because of what funded partners told or asked us:

  1. We awarded retrospective Cost of Living grants to all our funded partners – and decided that future multi-year grants will be linked to inflation and told our current partners in advance. 
  2. We’re starting to offer Funder Plus ‘quick-wins’ including writing references for partners for grant applications and inviting other local funders to some catch-up visits and events.
  3. We invited young peer mentors and clients from a youth charity in Brixton we fund to our Board Away Day at our investment managers, Sarasin & Partners UK, so they could meet and ask Board members and Sarasins’ staff questions direct, share their own insights and challenges, find out about financial services. It also supported the charity’s own programme of extending the horizons of their clients.
  4. We spoke at the opening of a funded partners’ new premises about why we funded, how our partnership worked and what we were learning – we met residents, service users, current and potential funders learning more and answering questions. 
  5. We know which funding practices make the biggest difference and are prioritising (ie: in-person visits; no monitoring forms; transparency ahead of each visit; Trustee joining a visit once a year)
  6. We’ve shared the voices of our funded partners in a published case study with IVAR – Under the bonnet of Unrestricted Giving at Peter Minet 
  7. We’re learning more about the benefits unrestricted, multi-year funding brings ie: catalyst for other funding; boost to staff confidence and wellbeing; saves funded partners costly book-keeping time; substantially reduces time and stress asking a funder for change of use when need changes – and will share this at funder networks.


5. What next?

Our learning review helped bring some order and focus, and it has more tightly defined the purpose of data collection and how it’s shared with the Board – which ultimately helps the Board answer the ‘so what do we do next?’ question. We’ve learnt a lot about what we do now that makes the most difference – and what else could make a difference to our funded partners with more time and investment or partnerships and this is currently feeding into our strategic review and planning for 2025 and beyond. 


Extra info: some practicalities - how we collect and manage data* and learning

*By data we mean information shared at visits (stories, reflections, activity observed, feedback) or in the public domain (social media, annual accounts) or reports written for other funders – and insights from Trustees with different perspectives who join visits.

This has remained broadly the same since we started unrestricted, multi-year giving in 2020 but now with more structure, focus and purpose: 

ApplicationMost due diligence is in the early application stages – we ask three questions in Stage 1 and two more in Stage 2 when we also ask for information applicants are likely to have already (ie:  recent finance report). Stage 3 is then a visit when we answer questions and explore how an unrestricted funding relationship could work.
Catch-up meetingsA catch-up plus a renewal visit each year – and joining occasional events. We don’t ask for bespoke reports but ask funded partners verbally about their activities, challenges, stories, ask questions, give us feedback. We write up notes and share with funded partners who can correct/edit them. We drop these notes internally in an overall matrix and use for thematic learning reports.
Renewal processSince the Learning Review, we’ve strengthened our renewal process following Board discussions about risk and compliance within a trust-based approach. We looked at both what ‘good’ and ‘concerns’ might look like for Peter Minet, what information we need to trigger a renewal grant and what happens if there is a concern. We share this approach with partners ahead of the renewal meeting and aim to avoid surprises. We want to avoid repeating the application process each year – this means checking ourselves all the time to make sure we’re focusing on essential, proportionate information.
Internal learning/Board papers Until the Learning Review, the Board received summaries on funded partners once a year– mostly a passive exercise. Now, we drop the ‘data’ captured above into a standard matrix and use it to write reports that are action-focused and thematic, in response to our learning questions, with a focus on ‘so what.’
Sharing We’ve started sharing learning– seminars, funder networks, contributions to sector reports
Staffing and our approachWith one part time staff member, a busy Board and in the context of other funding in Southwark and Lambeth, we believe Peter Minet’s funding makes more of a difference through relational funding with a relatively small number of partners, rather than transactional, one-off approaches with many.


Helpful links

We’re an active member of IVAR’s Open and Trusting campaign and committed to its 8 principles to make life easier for organisations we fund.

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